The Observer (15 April) reported that UK aid helps to fund forced sterilisation of India’s poor. Money from the Department for International Development has helped to pay for a controversial programme that has led to miscarriages and even deaths after botched operations. Apparently sterilisation remains the most common method of family planning in India’s bid to curb its burgeoning population of 1.2 billion.
Activists say some are told they are going to health camps for operations that will improve their general well-being only discovering the truth after going under the knife. Numerous reports of deaths after botched operations with pregnant women suffering miscarriages after being selected for sterialisation without being warned that they would lose their unborn babies. A working paper published by the UK’s Department for International Development in 2010 cited the need to fight climate change as one of the key reasons for pressing ahead with such programmes. The document argued that reducing population numbers would cut greenhouse gases, although it warned that there were ‘complex human rights and ethical issues’ involved in forced population control.
Clinics, doctors and even NGO workers are paid to persuade women to undergo sterilisation. The ‘choice’ in some cases linked to threats to lose ration cards. The sterilisation in some areas is carried out in sterilisation camps with poor hygiene and few qualified staff assisted the small number of doctors performing the operations. Last year DfID announced changes to aid for India specifically condemning forced sterilisation.
BBC Investigative Journalist Natalia Antelava reported (12 April Crossing Continents BBC Radio 4) on the Uzbekistan policy of secretly sterilising women. The increase in birth by caesarean section, (80% of babies are born this way), makes it easy to perform the operation removing the uterus alongside the baby. Apparently clinics are given targets for the number of sterilisations to be performed each month. Unsurprisingly the Uzbekistan authorities deny that the policy of sterilisation is law; officially it isn’t but Antelava gathered the testimonies of numerous women before the journalist was deported from the country.
Along the same lines as sterilisation contributing to tackling global warming in India the article cites ‘Several doctors and medical professionals said forced sterilisation is not only a means of population control but also a bizarre short-cut to lowering maternal and infant mortality rates.
“It’s a simple formula – less women give birth, less of them die,” said one surgeon.
The result is that this helps the country to improve its ranking in international league tables for maternal and infant mortality.
“Uzbekistan seems to be obsessed with numbers and international rankings,” says Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The article on the BBC website is worth reading as it articulates the horror of the situation with incredible sensitivity (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17612550)
The final sentence broke my heart with its poignancy:
The Uzbek government stressed that Uzbekistan’s record in protecting mothers and babies is excellent and could be considered a model for countries around the world.
However, Nigora is among many for whom forced sterilisation is a reality. She had an emergency C-section. A day later she was told she had been sterilised. On the same day, her newborn died.
Nigora is 24 and will never have children.
In decades gone by stories of sterilisation of the ‘mentally sub-normal’ of Native America women on reservations and more recently restrictions of how US Overseas aid could be applied to family planning (apparently condoms could not be funded this way). How outrageous is this particular form of state funded terrorism? Poor ill educated vulnerable women’s life ‘choices’ dictated by male politicians in plush offices thousands of miles away. The role of journalists prepared to give a voice to the stories of those who have been silenced by the state is vital.
In the context of the Women in Pregnancy project where we educated fortunate women have the luxury to explore and celebrate pregnancy these stories are particularly offence and hard to ignore. We have a responsibility to raise these issues; to spread the word and champion the rights of these women. As part of the Women in Pregnancy project one of the midwives told me the route of the word gossip and somehow it seems pertinent here. In the days before midwives there were women who went round helping with the birth of a child. These women were sisters in god; god sisters who spread stories and wisdom as they went from house to house. God sisters morphed in gossips; suddenly the positive side of gossiping (exchanging female intelligence)is obvious!